With any luck, later this year audiences everywhere will get to see Howl, a brilliant film by Academy-Award winning documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Starring James Franco as a young Allen Ginsburg, the film follows the 1957 trial surrounding the publication of his poem Howl.
Queer cinema doesn't get a lot of play in Hollywood, despite the countless gay men and women who work in the business, but "Howl" should be an exception. Daring in form, and excellently crafted, "Howl" manages to show a few golden moments in the life of one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, while also clearly articulating what Ginsberg refered to as the "(homosexual) condition."
To be clear, this is not a "gay film." This is a film about the power of language. Ginsberg's work shocked people for its frankness and the film is, at times, shocking in its choice of imagery. For that, though, audiences leave the theatre with a complete portrait of a man whose influence on the literary canon will not soon wane. The script--which relies heavily on dialog taken verbatim from the poem's trial as well as transcripts of an interview Ginsberg gave to Life magazine--is interspersed with a reading of the poem itself.
Now, beat poetry isn't everyone's thing and it's doubtful that general audiences will have read the works Ginsberg references through the poem itself--Sigmund Freud's Civilization and its Discontents, and Friedrich Nietztche's On the Geneaology of Morals among them--which is why the film's combination of narrative, documentary and animation elements is so effective.
The story of the poem's trial is interspersed throughout the film with chunks where Franco speaks directy to the audience and delivers a diaphragmatic reading of the poem. The poem's reading is overlaid with animation, which vividly shows the audience what it is Ginsberg is talking about in the poem. (It works, too. As I boarded a packed shuttle back to Sundance Festival Headquarters, I overheard several conversations about "Howl." Even those who didn't completely understand the poem's language were able to enjoy the film.)
The film is excellently cast, too. Apart from Franco's fine performance, the film sees cameos from Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn, and Mary-Louise Parker. But perhaps most excellently, Jon Hamm is expertly cast as Jake Erlich, who defended Ginsberg's work in court. Hamm doesn't get a lot of screentime, but as the film does carry a message about the power of language to change minds, there is no one better to sell the concept and close the deal--which he does with Don Draper-like perfection.
"These names were not lost on us when we cast them," said producer Christine Kunewa Walker at a panel discussion hosted by cineGLAAD after Tuesday's packed screening.
More than any other film I've seen which elects to tell stories about gay men, "Howl" very clearly articulates the isolation and stigmatization felt by a group of human beings who, even today, are told that they are something just short of being real, equal men. True, things have gotten better: in the time the poem "Howl" was written, homosexuality was still a crime and considered to be a mental illness; Ginsberg himself spent time in what he calls "the loony bin," escaping after he "promised to be straight."
But against the backdrop of the trial over California's Prop. 8, the frankness with which the film discusses society's treatment of male homosexuality is sure to provoke reflection upon current and related political issues.
Incidentally, another recent film aimed to do much the same thing and failed: though a much more vulgar exposition, "Bruno"(2009) tried to satirize simplistic preconceptions about male homosexuality by showing audiences a gay man so devoid of intelligence that it was hard to feel sorry for the trouble he got himself in. "Howl does the opposite by putting Ginsberg's erudite words on the subject of his sexuality into a form that everyone can understand.
Rather than letting the "best minds of (this) generation (be) destroyed by madness," "Howl" asks audiences to celebrate the joy of being different, of being creative, and of being open-minded.